I Called Him Morgan
I CALLED HIM MORGAN, not rated, documentary, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Jazz history is scarred with musicians who burned brightly and died young. The generation that emerged from the bebop movement was particularly hard hit. Its highest flyer, alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, known to live as fast as he played, was dead at thirty-four. The period’s trumpeters were especially vulnerable. Fats Navarro, an individualist with stunning technique said to rank at the time with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, succumbed to narcotics and tuberculosis in 1950 at the age of twenty-six. Clifford Brown, expanding on the innovations of his friend and mentor Navarro, was twenty-five in 1956 when he was killed in a car accident. Booker Little, born in 1938, influenced by both Brown and Navarro, was on to something that moved away from hard bop all together when he died from uremia in 1963. Lee Morgan, born the same year as Little and playing in Gillespie’s orchestra by the time he was eighteen, was thirty-three when he was shot to death by his common-law wife in 1972. Stories like these, involving race, health, and lifestyle, aren’t confined to any one instrument, or any single artistic genre. And scores of jazz trumpeters have made important contributions to the legacy during long, fruitful careers. Yet the promise of Navarro, Brown, Little, and Morgan continues to haunt jazz to this day. What might we be hearing today if they had survived?
Morgan’s career is the best documented of the group, probably because he started so young. He began playing professionally when he was fifteen and was a stand-out in fellow trumpeter Gillespie’s ensemble (Morgan adopted Gillespie’s bent horn with its upturned bell for a while). After leaving Gillespie, he joined drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and recorded some of the drummer’s most influential albums. His own recordings for the Blue Note label, including classics The Sidewinder, Search for the New
Land, and Cornbread brought together musicians such as pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Hank Mobley, and drummer Billy Higgins, in sessions that defined the changing face of the music during the 1960s. Kaspar Collin’s somber documentary, I Called
Him Morgan, benefits from the musician’s extensive recording history, the classic black-and-white photography of Francis Wolff and others, and performance films of a young Morgan as a member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers beginning in 1958. It’s a visual treat with grainy, glowing neon street footage of old New York City and Los Angeles cut with beautiful visions of skies filled with snowflakes and birds done by cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma) and Erik Vallsten. This visual imagery lifts I Called Him Morgan above the usual jazz bios with great music and the expected interviews of colleagues and acquaintances.
What really sets Collin’s film apart, however, is an interview he dug up of Morgan’s wife, Helen Morgan, the woman who shot him, collected by author and educator Larry Reni Thomas in 1996 after Helen had served time for manslaughter and a month before her death. From the film’s beginning — city scenes and closeups of newspaper headlines announcing the trumpeter’s shooting — we follow two vastly different lives and see how they came to be entwined. Collin knows how to find a touch of drama even in the film’s most mundane moments. In a show of the director’s respect for storytelling, Thomas relates how he met Helen, and then, in a kind of jazz-obsessive’s ritual, loads the cassette into a worn player. Helen’s story — she had two children by the time she was fourteen, left the country (“I never liked it at all”), and went first to Wilmington, North Carolina, and then to New York City to escape a bad marriage with a much older man — is as fascinating as that of the celebrated trumpeter. In the film, you see a determined and resolute woman, who is surprisingly frank and insightful about who she is (“I will not sit here and tell you that I was so nice”). Lee’s and Helen’s vastly different paths up to the point they met defines the intricacies of their relationship. Helen was a dozen years older than Lee. The trumpeter had reached bottom, addicted and homeless. He needed her and she needed him to need her. Helen took charge and helped get him clean and active again. When the end finally arrived, there was more than a “Frankie and Johnny”-style jealousy at play. In a strange sense, they were made for each other.
The contemporary interviews with Morgan’s associates, including bassist Jymie Merritt, Gillespie drummer Charlie Persip, and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who relates a story about Morgan racing his car through Washington Square Park at night, are fine-enough filler. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, never an easy interview, is particularly revealing about Morgan’s psyche, and how cognac played a role when the two were frontline partners in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The saxophonist composer Bennie Maupin provides first-hand insight into Helen and Lee’s unique relationship. It’s left to saxophonist Billy Harper to describe the scene that tragic night at Slugs’ saloon. The most fascinating subject is Helen’s son, Al Harrison, her firstborn. Adopted at birth, Harrison didn’t see his mother again until after the shooting, and his view of her is fresh and surprisingly warm. What is missed is Lee Morgan’s voice, probably because there’s little record of it (Collin has a reputation as a thorough researcher). Let us just say that the music reveals the man’s personality, if not his soul.
Young man with a trumpet: Lee Morgan, left, with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (Blakey on drums)